Samuel Blaser: Red Hook

It’s free and a little out there, but “Red Hook” does have a definable head that quickly afterwards probes deeply into the harmonic possibilities introduced by the dissonant theme. Morgan suggests the main lines before stating them outright in his solo, and then Blaser slows down the proceedings to ruminate for a while. The oddity---and indeed, the special allure of this song---is derived from Neufeld; juxtaposing his modern rock-ish guitar against sixties “new thing” jazz creates a tonal footprint like no other. He spars with Blaser and prod Sorey, using the forceful, amped sound of his guitar as an instigator as much as he does with his phrasing.

After a sudden signal by the leader, the wickedly tricky theme is played faster to take the song out. “Red Hook” is undeniably avant garde, but there’s as much purpose to it if not more than there is to be found in traditional hard bop.

October 22, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jon Irabagon: January Dream

Did you ever have to make up your mind? asks an old rock song. For many jazz musicians, the answer is a resolute no. Jon Irabagon, who won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition in 2008, is still in the early stages of his career, but he is already hard to pin down. His last release excited the influential clique who are convinced that progressive jazz must charge into the future imitating models from fifty years ago. For my part, I have a hard time gorking the concept that the future was then—there must be some Einsteinian time-space angle on it beyond my grasp—but I do relate to the grooving, straightahead swing of Irabagon's new project The Observer. "January Dream," the opening track, is old school, with its slow ramble on Blue Note-ish changes in Rudy's star chamber. The rhythm section is made up of the same guys Stan Getz was gigging with a quarter of a century ago, and though they might be the last folks you would expect to see along with Irabagon, they play admirably. The saxophonist for his part delivers his phrases with conviction and a very big sound—which I like, but I can hardly believe that this is the same horn player I heard back in his Charles Barkley days. In short, I am ready to buy in to this version of Mr. Irabagon, but I have no confidence that his next appearance will bear any resemblance to the artist presented here. Did you ever have to finally decide?

October 18, 2009 · 0 comments

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Bill Cunliffe: Yearnin'

The Blues And The Abstract Truth, take 2 is pianist Bill Cunliffe's tribute to the classic jazz album by Oliver Nelson. Less remake and more re-examination, Cunliffe's arrangements of Nelson's compositions are faithful to the originals while allowing Cunliffe to sound his own voice. "Yearnin'" might be the furthest diversion from Nelson's arrangement, in its updating of the harmonic language and in the lead soprano sax of Bob Sheppard. Sheppard is also heard soloing on tenor sax right after the head, so either he made a lightning-quick change of horns or the solo was dubbed in later. Sheppard's tenor sound has a hollow sound that works well within the blues context. He shows great control of the horn and a wealth of ideas. Terell Stafford is next and his trumpet style bears more than a passing resemblance to Nelson's original trumpeter, Freddie Hubbard. Stafford plays a fiery solo that ranges all over the horn, and like another of his idols, Clifford Brown, Stafford's sound stays big and full no matter how high in the stratosphere he goes. Cunliffe's short piano solo is exceptionally well-crafted, using single lines throughout, with intriguing note choices at the beginning and deft rhythmic displacement at its peak. Mark Ferber uses mallets on tom-toms to bring back the original misterioso mood. While it would be impossible to top the original album, Cunliffe's tribute enhances the original with fresh approaches to these classic tunes.

October 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Ben Allison: Fred

Most new millennium jazz talents show off their influences with such zeal, that there is little left after you peel away the post-Blue Note, post-Brecker, post-Trane, post-whatever elements in their music. But Ben Allison is not that kind of artist. His compositions are beguiling structures of sound seemingly constructed on their own in-born impulses. There are clever touches, but they are woven so well into the flow of the song that the casual listener will hardly notice.

Check out "Fred," for example, with its nice turnaround at bar eight, leading into a restatement of the A theme which—surprise!—is two bars longer the second time around. Then the bridge stretches out to an unconventional 18 bars, which is not comme il faut but not really asymmetrical any more, since the two A themes also added up to 18 bars. No, a 36 bar structure is not your typical song form, but it sounds fresh and free here.

Allison throws in a spacey interlude, and by the time you get to the violin solo, you may have forgotten this is a jazz track. It sounds like a soundtrack to a state of mind. The band, for its part, has left the standard virtuoso demonstrations of technique back home, and instead aims to match the mood of the music, which it does with perfection. All in all, you won't find much ostentation here, but make no mistake, Allison's group is one of the finest chamber jazz ensembles around.

October 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jeff Hamilton: The Serpent's Tooth

Miles Davis wrote "The Serpent's Tooth" for a 1953 recording date he led featuring the enviable two-tenor lineup of Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins. Unfortunately, neither tenor man was at his best that day, and MIles' fine composition has not been covered much in the intervening years. Jeff Hamilton used it as the closing number on his trio CD, Symbiosis, and bassist Christoph Luty's ingenious arrangement abruptly takes the tempo down to half-speed at the beginning of the bridge, only to gradually accelerate back to the original fast tempo in the first four bars of the final A section. While the tempo changes do not occur during the solos, the two appearances of the accelerating passage show just how well this group plays together. All three members of the group solo here. Pianist Tamir Hendelman gets the lion's share (or serpent's share?) with a dazzling solo that starts in straight-ahead bop style but moves in and out of more advanced harmonic territory. In his last chorus, Hendelman incorporates an exciting shout chorus to offset his improvised ideas and to offer a thrilling conclusion to his solo. Luty's solo sticks in the bebop style and features stunningly articulated hornlike lines which most bass players wouldn't dream of trying. Hamilton roars through his spots with rapid-fire movement between his toms and tenor drums. An excellent performance by one of the best mainstream groups in jazz today.

October 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Tamir Hendelman: Sycamore

While he can wow the crowds with outrageous piano flights a la Gene Harris, I am much more enamored of Tamir Hendelman's sensitive ballads. He has a delicate touch that he saves for ballads, and he instinctively knows how to temper his technique in order to maintain the mood. His beautiful composition "Sycamore" is a highlight of his debut CD, Playground. Written in memory of the boyhood walks he took with his father, the melody is simple, childlike and touching. The bridge features John Clayton bowing a bass formerly owned by his mentor, Ray Brown. Hendelman's solo starts seamlessly from the melody, and in its dreamy world, there is a perfect balance between the multi-note runs and leisurely rubato ideas. Like Hendelman, Clayton's solo draws from elements of the melody and draws its strength from its restraint. Throughout the performance, Jeff Hamilton provides welcome splashes of color with his exquisite brush work. This was undoubtedly a special song for all three of the musicians, especially Hendelman, who as a young father, must now be looking forward to spending the same quality time with his children as his father did with him.

October 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Janine Santana: Red Clay

I'm not a big fan of Latin remakes of jazz standards, but in the case of "Red Clay", which seems forever locked into its original arrangement, changes and adaptations are more than welcome. Denver percussionist Janine Santana's arrangement of the Freddie Hubbard classic effectively straddles the line between Latin and funk, splitting up the melody between short Latin grooves.The horns get the major melodic lines up front, but later, the rhythm section plays the ascending line from the B section. The rhythm's part is so well-written that the passage is well underway before the listener grasps what is happening. Trumpeter Greg Gisbert and alto saxophonist Richie Cole share the solo spotlight with Santana. Gisbert's solo is filled with unusually-shaped ideas and spectacular passages in the high register. While it sounds like he's playing into an echoplex, the sound and late echoes are all acoustic. Cole's solo, while exciting and well-played, is considerably more restrained than his wild playing from the late 70s. Santana's brief spot offers effective counter-rhythms over the churning rhythm team. Overall, a fine alternative approach to a jazz chestnut.

October 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Quartet San Francisco: Strange Meadowlark

One of the best aspects of jazz is that it constantly refutes any ongoing assumptions about its essence and nature. Think you can define this music? Just try and soon enough, someone will come along with a new style that is undoubtedly jazz, but not within your definition. And if the Turtle Island and Kronos quartets haven't shaken your concept of what string quartets can do, just listen to Quartet San Francisco's CD of Dave Brubeck compositions for a fresh approach.

Brubeck's "Strange Meadowlark" was the only tune in 4/4 time on his album Time Out and in 2001, violinist Jeremy Cohen created an arrangement for Quartet San Francisco based on the slow outer sections of Brubeck's classic recording. For their new all-Brubeck CD, Cohen rewrote and expanded the arrangement to include the middle swing section and to incorporate the improvised solos by Brubeck and Paul Desmond. The QSF is very comfortable with this material and there's a wonderful rhythmic looseness in their version. And while Desmond's and Brubeck's solos are played note-for-note, the way that the notes are played is quite different from the original recording. Desmond and Brubeck used fairly marked articulation in their solos, but violinist Cohen and violist Keith Lawrence use a lazy legato sound and slides in creating their own interpretation. Cohen takes Desmond's solo for himself, but Brubeck's solo ideas jump back and forth between violin and viola, offering a fine contrast in instrumental timbres. The final melody chorus, originally solo piano, is orchestrated for the full quartet for a superb and fulfilling ending. While the approach to this tune might not be to all tastes, it is certainly worth a listen.

October 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Ben Perowsky: Shema (Shaharit)

Ben Perowsky is a dynamic drummer who has successfully balanced work in straight-ahead jazz, experimental/free jazz, and rock/pop music over the last twenty years, with sideman credits including James Moody, Rickie Lee Jones, Mike Stern, John Scofield, and John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards, among many others. A highlight from his thriving career as a bandleader is Camp Songs, a piano trio session featuring Uri Caine and Drew Gress made for John Zorn’s Tzadik label.

As it turns out, Perowsky’s camp songs were Jewish songs, and his modest, musical arrangements of some of Judaism’s most commonly sung (and agonizingly catchy) tunes are presented here, not at all as a vehicle for tongue-in-cheekness but rather a genuine attempt to adapt sung prayer into jazz melody. While the first few tracks are the most recognizable, “Shema (Shaharit)” is a deconstructed mid-record highlight. These three musicians meld perfectly here – Perowsky’s brushes-then-sticks work shows that he’s mastered the art of placing straight sixteenth notes in various spaces within a swing groove, and Caine’s and Gress’s two-as-one movements simultaneously display Caine’s rhythmically modern, classically melodic phrasing and Gress’s unrelenting harmonic aid. A personal and personable track.

October 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Krantz Carlock Lefebvre: War-Torn Johnny

I’d wager that on average, when Wayne Krantz gets together with long-time trio mates Tim Lefebvre (bass) and Keith Carlock (drums), seven of every ten music-making minutes are collectively improvised. Throughout their many years of gigging at Krantz’s Thursday night residency at the 55 Bar in NYC, the trio thrived after the main head was played, when Krantz would conduct this tightest of groups through multiple, spontaneous tempo shifts and groove makeovers within a single tune’s ten-to-fifteen-minute open yet purpose-driven jamming sections.

“War Torn Johnny,” like the rest of the recently released Krantz Lefebvre Carlock, is a bit of a departure from the abovementioned agenda in that it is a bit more of a compact electric fusion record. Their signature straight-and-swung grooves, blinding chops, and collective improvisations are still present, but the desire to present a slightly more musically (commercially?) available record is undeniable.

“Johnny” is an instrumental (there are vocals from Krantz elsewhere) that perhaps best combines the previous candidness of the Krantz experience with a slight nudge towards user-friendliness. Note the epitome of the modern Krantz sound in the “A” section, a “B” section that sounds like it's borrowed from his work in the early ‘90s, and the New Orleans-inspired breakdown groove that dominates the proceedings beginning at 01:30. A fine example of one of the most under-heralded trios of the last decade that’s sure to reach a wider audience with this new record, and deservedly so.

October 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Bobo Stenson: Send in the Clowns

The blend of Bobo Stenson’s pensive delivery of this famed melancholy melody and the freely moving, pulsating bed of rhythm that Jormin and Motian provide bears one of the more striking opening tracks in recent memory. As the melody unfolds and casts a gradually darker shadow, the dynamic variation intensifies, with each player choosing their own space to claim temporary headship before recoiling to concentrate on mood and texture. The spontaneous rhythmic output ranges from quick bursts, as evidenced by the perfectly poked-out bass line at 1:18, to extended runs, exemplified by Motian’s web of polymetric thoughtfulness from 1:32 to 1:42, at once intensely daring and elegant as only this drummer can supply. Far from your typical “get through the head” mentality in order to usher in the improvisation, this four-minute extended statement of “Send in the Clowns” proves that, when in doubt, melody is enough.

October 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Todd Sickafoose: Invisible Ink Revealed

Bassist Todd Sickafoose’s music is highly original and unconventional, and some will surely hesitate to call it jazz. He belongs to a generation of musicians who are familiar with the jazz language and have mastered it, but have also listened to rock and to folk music during their teenage years (and still do), who occasionally enjoy playing with a pop singer (Ani Di Franco, in Sickafoose’s case) and who, beside their talents as instrumentalists, have a strong taste for composing and arranging. Brian Blade would be the most famous example of this type of contemporary musicians, and the atmosphere of the present composition by Sickafoose is not very far from that of some of Blade’s “Fellowship” band tunes. There’s no real solo nor melody in this song, which starts with the bass playing a bouncing romp over hand-claps, while the horns and reeds blow parallel lines with a strong vibrato. When the electric guitar enters with a short melody, followed by the drums playing a rock beat, the sound becomes heavier, but a trickle of notes from the piano soon brings a whiff of lightness, as does the acoustic guitar that comes next. While the strings dominate the sound spectrum, we’re in a soft folk-rock atmosphere until the horns reenter and give the whole thing a mild latin tinge, mixed with a twist of the Miles Davis early seventies experiments, courtesy of some moderate electronic effects. In all, one admires the art of sound blending that Sickafoose displays on a tune that definitely has its own sonic density and seamless organic construction, without ever sounding devised in an intellectual, formal way.

October 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jackie Allen: Stardust

"Stardust" is among the most recorded songs in history. The Guinness Book of World Records lists it as the most-recorded song ever, and Tom Lord's "Jazz Discography" lists it as the eleventh-most recorded song by jazz musicians. The various legends surrounding the song's origins have it inspired either by the music of Bix Beiderbecke or the memory of a former girlfriend (and since it was written by Hoagy Carmichael, we might expect that it was a little of both). When the melody was composed in 1927, it was conceived as a medium-tempo instrumental, but by the time Mitchell Parish's lyric was added in 1931, it had been recorded at least twice as a ballad.

"Stardust" is a song ("Lush Life" is another) where the verse is as beloved as the chorus. Frank Sinatra's most famous recording of the song included only the verse, and the recording reviewed here, by Jackie Allen with the Muncie Symphony Orchestra, includes two renditions of the verse, with a single performance of the chorus in the middle. Arranger Frank Proto scores each version of the verse differently. The opening features a solo French horn, soon paired with Allen. Little by little, other wind and string instruments come in, building subtly to the chorus. Proto's writing for the strings is glassy and other-worldly, reflecting the dream-like state of the lyric. Allen maintains the atmosphere with a cool reading of the lyric, and by staying close to the melody. When the verse returns, the strings predominate the scoring at first, but then they yield to the woodwinds. The horn call comes back at the halfway point, and leads the ensemble nearly to the end, tying the arrangement together. The coda is remarkably understated, but very effective.

October 09, 2009 · 0 comments

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Stacey Kent: I Get Along Without You Very Well

The full title of this song is "I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes)". Ay, there's the rub. It is not a song of triumph about surviving a breakup, but a song of intense loneliness and false bravado. It is one of the few songs where Hoagy Carmichael wrote both the music and lyrics, and the lyrics reflect a feeling we've all had when we've realized that it's just not possible to always make it on your own.

In her duet recording with guitarist Colin Oxley, Stacey Kent brings out the loneliness of this song even more than its better-known interpreters, Frank Sinatra and Chet Baker. She starts by singing the title line alone, and Oxley comes in only when she sings the line Of course, I have which is when the narrator starts to realize the futility of that statement. Throughout the recording, she expresses great vulnerability and adds intensity only as the lyric dictates. She never deviates from the melody and her slight bits of expression--a slide here, or a sigh there--don't detract from the message of the lyric.

The recording comes from an album where Kent pays tribute to her male singing role models. But in this case, she may have made the definitive recording herself.

October 09, 2009 · 0 comments

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Kyle Asche: Nite Vidual

Mel Rhyne was Wes Montgomery’s regular organ sideman during the guitarist’s Riverside period, and lately he has recorded with top-notch Chicago- and New York-based jazzmen. On his modal original, “Nite Vidual”, Rhyne locks in a groove with drummer George Fludas. Rhyne’s abbreviated solo is brisk, but effective, then his energetic comping on the vamp leads to hard-edged, fluid improvising by Asche, as the guitarist plays an extended solo featuring several Montgomery-influenced ideas.

September 29, 2009 · 0 comments

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